Book Review: The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
By Keefe Boerner
In The Clockwork Universe, Edward Dolnick traces the progress of the intellectually revolutionary 17th century, how the world evolved from 1543, when Copernicus announced that the planets revolve around the sun, not the earth, to 1705, when the queen of England knighted Isaac Newton for his discoveries of universal gravitation.
Dolnick has extensive experience writing for casual readers of science, and this entertaining exploration of the evolution of astronomy and mathematics reads like a mystery, where the clues are gradually revealed through a series of geniuses, each building on the work of another to reveal how the solar system works. He exhaustively researched and illustrates scientists personalities, lives, research, alliances and feuds with entertaining storytelling that is sure to appeal to science wonks as well as the curious in other fields. The math and astronomical theories are simply explained. He injects humanity into the stiff two-dimensional portraits we commonly conjure when we hear the historical names.
In Part One, Chaos, Mr. Dolnick transports the reader back in time to the 17th century to understand the context of the story. We are reminded that there was no hygiene, no clean energy and God ruled all men’s lives through fears of hell’s eternal fires. London is described as filthy, ignorant, feces strewn, sooty, religious and, eventually, nearly wiped out by the plague. The Plague was the reason that Newton left Cambridge in 1664 to return to his mother’s farm for two years, which is referred to as his ‘Miracle Years’ when he developed calculus, his theories for universal gravitation, optics and light. Newton is described as an odd, temperamental, obsessive tinkerer and calculator, shutting himself up for days to solve a mathematical theorem, focus on alchemy, or experiment with his prisms. He had even poked a spike behind his own eyeballs to understand how manipulating the shape of his eye influenced his sight.
Mr. Dolnick points out this century was so remarkable because these scientists were willing to test and question theories that had been held since Aristotle; that the earth and men are not the center of the universe and that motion is predictable and follows geometric and mathematical laws. The way of thinking about the world shifted. It was no longer looking at the world and wondering WHY something happened, but HOW something happened.
Mr. Dolnick delves deeply into the personalities of his characters. For example, he gives insight into Johannes Kepler by tracing his life from sickly poor childhood to his failures as a teacher to early experiments on explaining the solar system and even his time defending his mother of charges of witchcraft. Much of the charm of Clockwork is that Mr. Dolnick spends as much time showing the full, human, process of the discoveries.
In The Clockwork Universe, Mr. Dolnick delivers incredibly rich insight into the remarkable century that brought us into the modern world, where man finally exited the long dark ages and built the foundations that propelled man to clearly see and even touch the heavens. It’s sure to appeal to casual observers of science as well as those deeply involved.